I don’t consider it a broad-sweeping statement that everyone has their “non-negotiables”. Maybe you only drink domestic beer, shop at boutique stores, or date bearded men. I would imagine that your non-negotiables carry over to the realm of travel. While my list of travel non-negotiables has evolved over the years, there is one that to this day I won’t budge on. My non-negotiable is that of using a local tour guide. I’ve never booked one online or before I’ve taken a trip. I’ve always gotten to the destination, asked around, done my research, and then picked a travel guide. Similarly, once I’ve found a good tour guide, I stick with that person for the duration of my trip. I went against my instincts one time, on a trip to St. Lucia, and I vowed not to do it again.

Something I frequently say while on the road is that a tour guide can “either make or break your trip”. For example, last fall I was in Detroit, Michigan for a few days. Growing up as a musician when I was a child and with a love for music, I went to the Motown Historical Museum in downtown Detroit. What from the outside looks little more than a two-story, family home, my eyes bulged a bit when I saw that the tour would last approximately two hours. However, I was treated with one of the best guides I’ve ever had. He was one of the most outgoing guides I’ve seen, frequently singing and dancing and getting the group involved in the tour. Because of that, the tour guide made the visit to the Detroit Motown Museum.

Meet Marvin, one-half of Mardigi.

Let’s now fast forward to a few weeks ago. I had been asking around Coco, Costa Rica for a good tour guide. I got several recommendations, but one tour guide kept coming up. I got in touch with the tour group called Mardigi Tours. I told them how long I was in Costa Rica and what I was interested in, and we agreed they would get in touch when they had tours come available.

A couple days later I was enjoying drinks in town one afternoon with a couple of friends. “So what are you doing tomorrow”, my friends asked. Right about then, Mark from Mardigi Tours walked over. “Hey Spence. Listen, we have a group going to Nicaragua tomorrow.” Without hesitation, I responded: “Count me in.” I didn’t care the details, I was just ready for the next adventure. “Spence, we’re leaving at 5 a.m.” A little more reluctantly, I responded: “Yes, that’s not a problem. See you at 5 in the morning.” I had never uttered those words before. It was like a foreign language. Mark walked away, as I took a swig of beer, and my friends said: “I guess you’re going to Nicaragua tomorrow”.

A Nicaraguan Maraca

That was the first of a couple of trips I’ve now gone on with Mardigi Tours. Readers, meet Marvin. Marvin is the Crocodile Dundee of the company, even sporting his own Dundee/Indiana Jones hybrid hat. He knows Central America like no one I’ve ever met. For Marvin, it’s not just about reaching a destination, but filling in the gaps and making tours fun and interactive for travelers. Also, whenever you see photos from Central America that I am in, you have Marvin to thank for that. Then there’s, Digi, the “D.I.G.I.” of Mardigi. No, “Mardigi” isn’t a Spanish term, but only the forging of this husband and wife team. Digi is the brains and the eyes. On a river boat tour through Palo Verde National Park, Digi spotted a baby crocodile camouflaged under some brush on the shore while we were speeding down the middle of the river. Lastly, there’s Mark. Mark is originally from Canada, and the face of Mardigi around Coco, Costa Rica. He runs the tour booth, talking with travelers that pass by and booking trips.

Two trips in, and I have no plans of using any other tour guide while in Costa Rica. Both of those trips have been two of my most memorable moments in Costa Rica, which is saying a lot, since I don’t get up at 4 a.m. for just anyone. I believe there’s a certain standard that tour guides should exemplify, but it’s tour companies like Mardigi that are what “make” a trip. Certainly, feeding monkeys and peering into a volcano are certainly epic, and I don’t want to lessen the experience of that, but it is those small things that go above and beyond. It’s the interactivity, buying drinks, Q&A, and conversations that make it memorable. In the case of Mardigi, it was also buying the entire group maracas with our names carved in them.

What’s your travel non-negotiable? Have you had a tour guide experience that was exceptional?